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Wanda Jackson: Rockin’ with Wanda

Wanda Jackson: Rockin’ with Wanda

Wanda Jackson is one of the great rock ’n’ roll badasses.

Wanda Jackson: Rockin’ with Wanda

3.75 / 5

Wanda Jackson is one of the great rock ’n’ roll badasses. Even those who’ve only heard “Let’s Have a Party” or “Hard Headed Woman”—both made famous by Elvis, who romanced her briefly in the mid-‘50s—know her as a snarling presence who was flipping off the patriarchy before most punks and riot grrrls were even born. A video of Jackson singing Elvis’s “Hard Headed Woman,” celebrating historic hellcats like Delilah and Jezebel with a cry of “you betcha,” still makes the rounds on the Internet every now and then. She seems perpetually in the process of being discovered, and her 1960 compilation Rockin’ with Wanda has been frequently reissued, this Wax Love edition coming less than three years after one from Cornbread Records.

Rockin’ with Wanda was released to capitalize on the success of her single “Let’s Have a Party,” which became a hit three years after it was recorded once a DJ in Des Moines took a shine to it. Not many of the songs here were successful on release. Jackson had more luck as a country artist in her time than as a rock ’n’ roll artist. But she was so good at rock ’n’ roll it’s hard to remember her singing anything else. Rock ’n’ roll allowed her to cultivate a cartoonishly hard-headed persona, a woman who goes out with her man’s best friend just to put him in his place, one who will “Drink a quart of sake, smoke dynamite/ Chase it with tobacky and then shoot out the lights.” Her snarl still sounds almost uncomfortably rugged today, like she’s destroying her own throat with each take.

Being a compilation rather than one of the rapidly and crudely-assembled albums that dominated the music industry in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, Rockin’ with Wanda moves much more smoothly than most of its kin. It begins with mostly rock ’n’ roll tracks like “Fujiyama Mama,” “Rock your Baby” and the amazing “Honey Bop.” Later on, the tempos slow and the textures deepen as it moves through her country material and a few stabs at Connie Francis-style pop. The bonus tracks on the Wax Love edition include a few of her biggest hits not originally included on Rockin’ with Wanda, including “Hard Headed Woman” and “Let’s Have a Party,” but this set is satisfying enough as it is despite being light on her best-known songs.

Her motions into other genres than rock ’n’ roll feel almost like cosplay, not because they’re unconvincing but because we know it’s Wanda Jackson, our Wanda Jackson, singing. When she does something like “A Date with Jerry,” swanning away on a cloud of backing vocals to fantasize about the king of the school, it feels like a wry joke just because we understand what she’s capable of. The songs about being stupidly in love are as much expressions of agency as the songs about spitting fire at men who dare cross her. Like most pre-Beatles stars, Jackson wrote only a fraction of her own songs, and her self-penned songs actually lean less radical than the ones written for her by men.

Jackson’s progressive credentials are nothing to scoff at. She was one of the first women in either country or rock ’n’ roll to wear low-cut clothes (inspired by Marilyn Monroe) and credits herself with bringing “glamour” and “sex appeal” to the table for female rockers. She was one of the first rock ’n’ roll artists to tour with an integrated band. She was certainly the first woman in rock to portray a free spirit with such a vengeance, though the great Kitty Wells had already set the course for feminist country with early-‘50s songs like “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”

Jackson also recorded “Fujiyama Mama,” one of the most insensitive songs ever put to wax, which equates her wrath to the atom bomb—and, weirdly enough, was enough of a hit in Japan that she toured there in 1959 and 1960. And “Don’a Wan’a” is the kind of fake-accented cod-calypso track that was far too common in American music after Harry Belafonte’s success. Whether or not they make it harder to root for her is really up to the listener, but they drag us back into the prejudice and paranoia of the ‘50s—the very things against which Jackson, at her best, stands as a beacon of light.

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